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McSlarrow: Time To Cut DTV Cat Fighting

In the wake of a compromise FCC decision on cable carriage of broadcaster's DTV signals after the transition to digital, National Cable & Telecommunications Association Chairman Kyle McSlarrow says it's time for broadcasting and cable to cut the cat fighting and focus on educating consumers.

Per the unanimous FCC decision, Cable will be required to provide a viewable TV station signal to both its analog and digital customers after the transition. Cable operators oppose mandated carriage on First and Fifth Amendment grounds and had argued it would take care of its paying customers as a matter of good business practice anyway. But, ultimately, the industry decided to offer a three-year voluntary carriage deal, which the FCC decision--for three-years of carriage with an option to renew--mirrored in part.

"While there may be these back-and-forth public statements," said McSlarrow in an interview with C-SPAN for its Communicators series. "The truth is we, and the broadcasters, satellite industry, the consumer electronics industry, and the FCC and other government agencies, have to work together to get out of this sort of cat fighting and focus on making sure that consumers know about the digital transition in 2009 and know what tools are available to them."

McSlarrow was also responding to a statement from the National Association of Broadcasters framing the FCC carriage decision as preventing "cable gatekeepers" from "discriminating" against minority programmers.

NCTA last week announced a $200 million "massive" DTV consumer education campaign and McSlarrow said that move came even though it is a "broadcaster transition, not a cable transition," but pointing out that his industry is the "biggest provider of cable television services in the country," with a responsibility to help with that transition.

McSlarrow said the ads are to make sure cable customers don't panic. "They're not the ones being affected. But if you have an over-the-air TV with rabbit ears, you are going to have to take some action if it only has an analog tuner in it."

McSlarrow said arguments for a la carte, which FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been pushing, make an easy bumper sticker but bad communications regulatory policy. The sticker: Why should I have to pay for channels I don't watch. "Even I would say that," says McSlarrow.  "Problem is, that's not the way the system actually works. Right now, the networks you don't watch help keep the costs down for networks you do watch."

"We've had lots of arguments" over the issue, McSlarrow pointed out, "I haven't convinced him and he hasn't convinced me. Unfortunately for me, he wields a lot more authority than I do." But not enough authority to impose an a la carte regime, he says. "I think they have the ability to inquire about it, which is completely appropriate, but in terms of jurisdictional authority to actually implement it? No. Think about how intrusive that would be. You're talking about messing with people's television."